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Peabody School Puts Finishing Touch on Exploration Center

Thanks to the generosity of the Pinner family, school can close the book on its $4.2 million fund-raising project.


If you build a science exploration center out of donated dollars, the kids will learn. But if it isn’t completely paid for, the once-steady flow of donation checks may slow to a trickle.

That was the hard lesson learned by Peabody Charter Elementary School, which 3½ years ago opened a magnificent Exploration Center holding a science laboratory, computer room and library, complete with a fireplace and hearth. Trouble was, the San Roque neighborhood public school still needed to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars to pay off the debt to the Santa Barbara School District.


On Monday, Peabody’s arduous journey came to a happy end, when the school publicly named the center in honor of a parent who recently ponied up $300,000 to pay off the balance.

The parent, real-estate manager Trey Pinner, is the former chairman of the school’s board of directors, and for years had worked on the project as a parent fund-raiser. As such, he was keenly aware of the school’s predicament.

The decade-long saga of the recently christened Pinner Family Exploration Center is complex, but in a nutshell, Peabody School made arrangements to pay back the Santa Barbara public school district for building the center.


(Although Peabody is a charter school — meaning it is operated by its own parent-run board of directors — it is still a part of the Santa Barbara School Districts.)

Things started off with a bang in 1998, when a voter-approved bond secured $800,000 for the project. But Peabody — which has a foundation dedicated solely to raising money — wanted to shoot for the moon, and vowed to generate cash for a more extravagant structure.

In the next three years the school’s foundation, operated mainly by parents, raised an eye-popping $1 million in donations. When construction crews broke ground in 2001, it appeared the school’s fund-raising efforts were 75 percent complete.

But then the cost of steel skyrocketed, as did the cost of the project. What began as a $2.5 million project wound up with a final price tag of $4.2 million.


The district footed the bill, giving Peabody a kind of interest-free loan. (However, the district technically owns the school.)

So when the center opened up in December 2004, the fund-raising work was far from over. And while the sight of kids dissecting squid in a college-caliber science lab was encouraging, persuading donors to chip in after the fact was a tough sell.

Nonetheless, the school’s former principal, Pat Morales, never doubted that a big donor would save the day. In fact, on Monday, Morales — who retired two years ago — recounted how Pinner himself was skeptical that a hero would come along.


“I can remember Trey asking me, ‘Do you really believe that’s going to happen?’” Morales said during a dedication ceremony in the courtyard, with hundreds of elementary students sitting in the grass. “He would just look at me in disbelief."

Then, turning her gaze toward Pinner, Morales added, “And today, I look at you in disbelief.”

Pinner, who accepted an award with his wife, Nancy — an art teacher at the school — said the donation was made possible by the sale of a piece of San Diego property that was once owned by his grandmother.

The Pinners have three children, the youngest of whom finished sixth grade two years ago.


On Monday, Pinner, who turns 45 on Tuesday, did his best to downplay his family’s involvement in creating The Pinner Family Exploration Center.

“We were just a very small part of what we have here,” said Pinner, who is a partner with the local firm Professional Investment Planning. “It’s just a building. Unless there are teachers and students in there, it’s just a building.”

The Pinner donation, however, is by far the project’s largest, doubling the amount of the next highest gift, from the Weingart Foundation of Los Angeles.

Many of the donations were quite modest.

Students, for instance, raised some money by starting a dog-walking business. Occasionally a student would stop by the principal’s office to hand over a $5 allowance.

Morales, who now is working on an effort to bring a children’s museum to Santa Barbara, has a fond memory of a fund-raiser in which she camped outside with the students in the courtyard, just outside the entrance of the center.


“We didn’t realize we were supposed to turn the sprinklers off,” she said.

Rather than call the parents of dozens of students at 3 a.m., she dried each sleeping bag, one by one, in front of the library’s fireplace.

The school’s current principal, Kate Ford, said once a student came to her office to donate a penny collection.

“This is the work of hundreds of people,” said Ford. “The center had some really humble and beautiful beginnings. When you reflect on that, it’s a big, big day.”

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